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Striking movie and TV writers worry that they will be replaced by AI


Hollywood writers are on their third week of a strike against major studios. They want higher wages and more residuals from the streaming platforms. Another issue they're still stuck on is the issue of using artificial intelligence in writing films and TV shows. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on the fears of screenwriters as they look to a possible future with AI in the writers room and the perhaps surprising ways that some writers are embracing it.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Movie and TV writers have envisioned AI as evil, as in "The Terminator."


ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (As The Terminator) I'll be back.

DEL BARCO: Or traitorous, as in the film "2001: A Space Odyssey."


KEIR DULLEA: (As Dr. Dave Bowman) Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

DOUGLAS RAIN: (As HAL 9000) I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

DEL BARCO: Or empathetic, like in the film "Her."


SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) Like, are these feelings even real, or are they just programming?

DEL BARCO: In real life, some Hollywood writers on strike say they're worried studio executives could eventually replace them with AI. That's one concern for comedy writer Miranda Berman, who picketed outside Paramount Pictures this week.

MIRANDA BERMAN: This is only the beginning. If they take writers' jobs, they'll take everybody else's jobs, too. And also in movies, you know, like, the robots kill everyone in the end.

DEL BARCO: On the picket line outside Universal Studios, TV writer Lanett Tachel said she's worried studios will hire fewer writers to simply doctor up whatever the machines come up with.

LANETT TACHEL: We're coming back fighting so that Alexis and whatnot aren't writing our stories. We're not here to rewrite a machine. We're not against the use, you know, if we can find a way to be reasonable. But they cannot be the genesis of any creation. We create these worlds.

DEL BARCO: Tachel says she recently read a script written by ChatGPT.

TACHEL: And it was terrifying. Now, was was the quality there? No, absolutely not. The structure was there. So they understand the structure of what to do. But it had no depth. It had no spirit. It didn't have nuance. It wouldn't understand how to handle race, certain jokes, things like that.

DEL BARCO: The Writers Guild of America, which called for the strike, says writers want more regulation of AI. For example, bans on studios using it to write or rewrite things like stories, treatments and screenplays or even write the source material that human writers would adapt for the screen. They also don't want the writers' work to be used to train AI. Meanwhile, the studios, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, say that the use of AI raises hard, important, creative and legal questions for everyone, and that it requires more discussion. They also point out that the current agreement already defines writers as people, so AI generated material wouldn't be eligible for writing credits. During a recent earnings call, Disney CEO Bob Iger told investors that AI development presents opportunities and benefits to the company.


BOB IGER: We're already starting to use AI to create some efficiencies and ultimately to better serve consumers. But it's also clear that AI is going to be highly disruptive, and it could be extremely difficult to manage, particularly from an IP management perspective.

DEL BARCO: AI experts and writers say the new technology isn't yet able to write a good script, but AI is starting to crop up in Hollywood productions, and some are embracing it as a tool. Writers from the show "Mrs. Davis" used algorithms to generate episode titles. And as part of the promotion for their show, co-creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof ran the "Mrs. Davis" premise through what's called an AI visualizer program. Computer-generated images popped up when they typed prompts into a keyboard.


TARA HERNANDEZ: And the prompt would go a little something like this. "Mrs. Davis" is a series about a nun, Sister Simone. She's a great nun, but she's also cool. She's an awesome renegade nun who rides a motorcycle.

DAMON LINDELOF: With a helmet. Always wear a helmet.

HERNANDEZ: Always. Always. Yes.

LINDELOF: And the nun has to find the Holy Grail in order to destroy this AI.

DEL BARCO: Other Hollywood writers say they're using AI in the form of language learning models to come up with ideas or spin out potential plot lines or develop characters using.

MATT NIX: I'm using it as a brainstorming tool and as a research aide.

DEL BARCO: TV writer Matt Nix says he tested several AI programs to give him episode ideas for his show, "True Lies." He says he recently pitched a new show and needed to research how a particular governmental agency worked.

NIX: Which you could do through a search engine, but it's a lot easier to do it with AI, because immediately after asking, OK, so what is the internal structure of this organization? You can then start building on that and saying, OK, so let's say there's a character named Joe who has this position. And let's say there's a character named Tina who has this position. How frequently would Joe and Tina be interacting?

DEL BARCO: Nix says when it comes to brainstorming ideas, if you make a single request, an AI program is likely to spit out the most cliched version of what it's seen before.

NIX: But if you play with it and you say, no, no, I don't want just one idea for this, I want five ideas for this, then it has to dig a little bit deeper and give you the less likely ideas.

DEL BARCO: Nix has been playing around with an AI app called Pickaxe. With it, writers can generate written scenes by describing their plots and characters in a text box. Pickaxe was built by Mike Gioia and Ian Eck, who run a film and media production company. Gioia says screenwriters have told them Pickaxe is a helpful tool.

MIKE GIOIA: To do, like, 80% of the work for them, like, get around writer's block, generate, like, a B-minus version of a scene or a conversation that they can then spruce up. It's a far way from being able to write screenplays, so I don't think many writers have to worry about their jobs.

DEL BARCO: Eck agrees.

IAN ECK: It's the creatives that are actually getting more empowered because you still need a creative mind. You need taste. You need to know what makes interesting drama and interesting characters, what makes a story good and what makes it human. That sensibility is not coming from the studio heads.

DEL BARCO: I tested out Pickaxe to see what it would come up with for the opening of a movie about an NPR reporter doing a story about how Hollywood writers are using AI.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Interior - script AI office day. A young writer turns around and smiles.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: We input data about what makes a successful movie - plot structure, general conventions, character traits - and our algorithm generates a fully-formed screenplay.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Suddenly, alarms blare. Red lights flash.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: The algorithm, it's gone rogue.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Panic ensues as Mandalit looks around in horror. The camera pans to show other workers screaming and running.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: It's generating plot lines that make no sense, characters that contradict themselves. We have to stop it before it's too late.

DEL BARCO: The technology is still developing, but so far, even the AI-generated script envisions the bots running amok, just like all those sci-fi movies we've seen before. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.